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Stories of our Nations, Footprints of our Souls: History Textbooks in Middle Schools and High Schools

An International Symposium at the Library of Congress

May 12-13, 2004
Thomas Jefferson Building
Room LJ-119

View Webcast
(Download a free version of RealPlayer (external link) software)

This symposium is made possible by the generous support of the Spencer Foundation. The Kluge Center is grateful for the collaboration of the American Historical Association and the Library's Educational Outreach staff of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

What History Textbooks Convey to Middle School and High School Audiences

History textbooks are difficult to write. They must reflect the changing knowledge of professional historians, and they are simultaneously subject to contemporary urgencies concerning identity, inclusion, and the privileging of some groups above others. To be readable, textbooks must also have a narrative line, tell a story, which is often shaped by nationalist ideals.

These conflicting demands can lead to culturally and politically charged disputes about the "ownership" of history. From whose perspective(s) should the story be told? What is the nature (authenticity and verifiability) of the evidence for particular views? How should tomorrow's citizens understand their past?

One of the most significant, though often overlooked, aspects of the historical story is how it shapes attitudes towards others. As distinguished historian, and inaugural holder of the Kluge Chair for Countries and Cultures of the South, Romila Thapar, wrote:

The past often conditions how we look at those who surround us: those who constitute the society that we identify with, or our more distanced neighbors, as well as those whom we may not know too well but who impinge on our lives. In other words, history is involved in the conceptualization of the Other and also in.uences how we behave towards the Other. Such behavior is not arbitrary, although the reasons for it may emerge from events relating to the past, or from arbitrary beliefs, or from social preconceptions emerging from the past and molding the present.

This is particularly so where there are groups in society that have been victimized in the past. Such groups exist in every society and to the extent that history has, until recently, been regarded as the remembered narrative of the dominant group, there has been an attempt to deny such a narrative to subordinated groups…Sometimes the dominant groups of today also claim to have been victimized in the past and such claims are made to assert their dominance."

Even though many of the examples we draw upon in this conference will address how history is taught in the United States, the pressing need for countries in other parts of the world to develop coherent national identities and simultaneously take account of global interconnections means that the content of history textbooks becomes crucial to self understanding.

In order to explore these themes, we bring together professional historians, publishers, high school teachers and students, congressional staff and education policy administrators. Our purpose is to understand how the fundamental narratives of a nation's, a people's, a country's past get framed, changed, transmitted to the next generation. How malleable are these perceptions? How are they evaluated, augmented, criticized in actual teaching?

As a result of this conference, we aim to provide a succinct statement of the difficulties, tensions, and resolutions of textbook production, combined with a realistic sense of the significance and use of textbooks in the classroom. Clearly situations will differ greatly among countries and even within them; but we believe that giving people a sense of some of the generic conditions of textbook creation will provide a foundation for a wider discussion of issues that are basic to the understanding of self and others.

Prosser Gifford, Director
John W. Kluge Center
May 12, 2004

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Wednesday, May 12, Morning session: (9 am - 12 pm)

The Changing Context of the Historical Narrative

Prosser Gifford (Kluge Center) Introduction: How do we identify the big historical themes?

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord
(Euroclio) How do new historical ideas and concepts get included in textbooks especially relating to national history?

Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago) What are/have been/will be the changing contexts of historical narratives?

Patricia Albjerg Graham
(Harvard University): What is the public purpose of history education? How has it changed and why?

Hugh Heclo (George Mason University) What role does religion play in the historical narrative? Introduction by Allen Thrasher (Asian Division).

Romila Thapar (Kluge Chair for Countries and Cultures of the South) Discussant.

Wednesday, May 12, Afternoon session (1:30 pm - 4:30 pm)

Interest Groups in Textbook Writing and Production

Arnita Jones (American Historical Association) Introduction: What are the concerns beyond professional history that determine inclusion and exclusion?

Wolfgang Hoepken (Georg Eckert Institut): How is the process of textbook production monitored and/or censored, and who does it?

Senator Lamar Alexander (Republican, Tennessee): What legislation is in process to bolster history and civics education?

Casper Grathwohl (Oxford University Press, Reference and Online Division): How do textbook publishers connect with various audiences both in structuring the text and selling the book?

Donald Ritchie (Office of the U.S. Senate) How do textbooks in American history get published and what are the challenges presented by "interested groups?"

Joseph Viteritti
(Princeton University): Who is interested in history textbooks and how do they articulate their interests?

Richard Cronin (Congressional Research Service). Discussant.

Thursday, May 13, Morning session: (9 am - 12 pm)

History in the Classroom: An Interactive Discussion with Teachers and Students

Teachers and students will address the following questions: Why do we teach history? Is it important to learn history? How do you teach history? How do you learn history? How do you make history relevant for students? And, what makes history come alive for you?

Prosser Gifford (Kluge Center). Moderator.

Leslie Gray (Fairfax County Public School, Online Campus, Virginia) with her student, Kathleen Finegan.

Robert Hines (Richard Montgomery High School, Maryland) with his student, Saul Carlin.

Cathy Hix (Swanson Middle School, Virginia) with her student, Hannah Bauman.

Rawiya Nash (Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Washington, D.C) with her student, Kayla Jones.

Julianne Turner (University of Notre Dame). Discussant.


We would like to thank the students and teachers of Fairfax County Public Schools who gave of their time and talent to develop and produce an introductory video (Download a free version of RealPlayer (external link) software) for this panel. The students and teachers are:

  • James W. Robinson Secondary School
    Teachers: Eileen Noonan, Markus Rodarmel, Shawn Spear, Tara McCord, and Jody McCabe
  • James Madison High School
    Teachers: Suzanne Savage, Sia Knight, Susan Robeson, and Gordon Leib Students: Kelsey Teeters, Dani Weinberg, Matt Vossekuil, Will Eaton, and Jody McCabe's Theory of Knowledge class
  • With special thanks to Lis Edwards, Carl Plath, and Casey Clarke.

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